29 March 2012

Africa: Breaking the Silence Around Racial Abuse


Not only must we speak out when the victims can no longer speak for themselves, but by breaking the silence around racial abuse, we can begin a healing process that addresses our collective hurt and humiliation and restores our humanity.

Over the last week, the nation has been gripped with the murder of Trayvon Martin. Everyone from the Children's Defense Fund's Marian Wright Edelman to boxing legend Muhammad Ali have photographed themselves in black hoodies, symbolizing both their solidarity with Trayvon and their stance against the stereotype-driven suspicion that haunts people of color. Hip Hop artists and celebrities, from Young Jeezy to Jamie Foxx, are helping attract attention to the case. Even Barack Obama --- whom nearly everyone thought would run from this like it was the plague (at least if he wanted to avoid Republican race-baiters like Newt Gingrich) --- spoke out powerfully.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," he said.

Despite all of this attention, some of my friends still cannot understand why I have been "so obsessed," in their words, with the murder of Trayvon Martin. I and others are so concerned with this case for obvious reasons. All of the details that have emerged in the media--recorded 911 calls, ear-witness testimonies, potential police misconduct, and racial slurs paint Trayvon's murder as a racially motivated crime carried out in the context of an institutional racism that sanctions violence against black bodies.

But aside from the specifics of this case --- and the many insightful analyses that have emerged --- there remains one reason above all others why this case has struck such a chord with communities of color.

While there have been numerous articles about the legal, political, and sociological aspects of this case, very little has been said about the emotional dimensions at the heart of all this huge outpouring of support. What is behind the outrage? What is it about this case that has triggered (and I hate to even use that word) such a strong response from so many people?

Trayvon Martin's parents at the Million Hoodies MarchWhile there are many possible answers to these questions, it is clear that the murder of Trayvon Martin provides us with a moment to deal with the personal and collective trauma of racial abuse. Very rarely are our narratives of racial abuse and racial violence heard in the public sphere. And while the following narratives are personal --- thus exposing my vulnerability --- I believe sharing them is necessary in order to help break the silence around racial abuse. And to help explain why so many people of color are "obsessed" with the murder of Trayvon Martin.

I posted a story on Facebook one evening earlier this winter. I had been trying to live a healthier lifestyle by walking, as opposed to driving, to nearby establishments in my "nice," "suburban," neighborhood. After a long day's work at Stanford University, where I teach, I decided to walk to the local Whole Foods to grab some dinner. After my walk home, I posted:

I just inadvertently scared the HELL out of a couple while walkin' home from dinner tonight - gotta love my neighborhood... Sorry, I'll try to look less menacing next time [I was wearing khakis, brown dress shoes, a black jacket and even had my Steve Urkel glasses on -- AND I was carrying a book! LOL!]... A serious thought there: Taking up the practice of walking to local places has shown me a new side to my neighbors -- the twisted irony is how someone else's fear of you can actually make YOU fear for your own safety... Think on that...

This was the first experience I thought of when I heard of Trayvon Martin's murder. Even though I tried to laugh it off in my post, I remembered the fear --- the very real fear --- that gripped me just a few months ago as I realized that the couple (a white couple; I de-raced them in an effort not to offend my white Facebook friends) was deathly afraid of me. Why were they running away from me and nervously looking over their shoulder every five seconds? Would the man try to "protect" his wife from the imagined violence that my brown body would inflict upon her? And then the one that made my heart literally skip a beat: Would they call the police? I did not want to end up being harassed, or in jail, or worse yet --- dead --- so I literally ran straight home with my heart racing.

My fear of the police stretches back for many years. And while I cannot yet share the most humiliating stories, I can begin with this.

As a graduate student, I often burned the midnight oil. One night I decided to take a break to the local Jack-in-the-Box to pick up some jalapeno poppers. As I waited at the drive-through window for my order, I saw a white man crossing the street in front of the restaurant. He was wearing blue jeans and a brown sports jacket with a button-down shirt underneath. I thought nothing of it; he was just a man crossing the street. After all, this is Palo Alto -- a wealthy, predominantly white suburb with very low crime rates -- so I had no reason to fear, right? So, the man crossed the street and continued to walk toward the restaurant. Then, strangely, he approached the side of my car and, out of nowhere, began POUNDING FEROCIOUSLY on my windshield, screaming, "GIVE ME THE KEYS!" over and over again in wildly slurred speech. Then he reached for the passenger side door handle. With adrenaline rushing through my body, I reached over quickly and lock the doors, barely beating him to it. As he continued to beat my windshield, I began to fear that he was going to actually break it; he was smashing it so hard that his hand was bloody. Then the fool actually started climbing on my car, looking into the window, screaming, "GIVE ME THE KEYS!" Without thinking, I slammed on the gas and he rolled off my windshield and onto the street. I started to call the police --- but I hesitated. After all, I thought to myself, I was safe, right, so what's the point?

My sense of civic duty wouldn't let me leave the scene. After all, my attacker might be a danger to other citizens. So, I called 911 and waited. Eight minutes passed. No cops. I followed my initial instinct and said, "Let me just forget the whole thing," and I drove off. As I was leaving, though, the police showed up. I walked over to them but they wanted to talk to my attacker first. He was curled up on the ground, probably drunk. After a few minutes, they walked over in my direction and began interrogating me.

"Can we see your knuckles, sir?"

"Huh?" I was honestly confused. "Why?"

"Show us your knuckles," the officer said sternly.

So, I raised my hands up so they could see my knuckles. The officer closest to me grabbed my hands and began closely examining my skin. He asked, "Did you assault this gentleman?"


"Did you beat this gentleman?" he asked again loudly.

"What? No! Wait, I'm the one who called 911! I was the one who was attacked!"

"Your hands look like they might be swollen," he continued.

I thought to myself angrily, "Swollen? From what? Typing too much?!" The officer --- against all common sense (why would ANYONE call 911 if they were the attacker?) --- told me that the man's hands were bloody and so I must have started a fist fight with him. Needless to say, my jaw dropped open in disbelief; I was furious!

To make a long story short: Here I was, the victim of a car-jacking where I could not only have lost my car, but my life, and the police were accusing me of being the aggressor?! By the next morning, my feelings of terror and outrage had evolved into a profound sadness --- one that sometimes still haunts me. Not only was I the victim of an attempted car-jacking, but the system that was designed to protect me from such violence was inflicting its own form of violence upon me.

Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee (L) speaks while announcing he will temporarily step down in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing as Sanford city manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. (R) stands by on March 22, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.It was then that I remembered why I initially hesitated to call the police. At the time, questions had quickly flashed through my mind: Would they do anything when they got here? Would they even believe me? I remember pushing these questions aside in order to "do the right thing." I said to myself, If anything, the video camera on the drive-through window would exonerate me.

Like many people of color, I had numerous experiences that have taught me not to always trust the police. My fear and distrust was to such a degree that I even had to think about providing sources of evidence to exonerate myself just in case the police didn't believe me. The racist hermeneutics of suspicion at play here --- demonstrated by the police's line of questioning --- only served as a reminder of the value placed on my humanity in the eyes of the law. My drunk, white attacker --- not me, a graduate student working on his dissertation --- deserved protection. Was this "justice, or "just us"?

And so, don't ask me why I had a fear response to that white couple's fear of me in my own neighborhood. And please don't ask me why I care so much about Trayvon Martin, a boy that I "don't even know." I may not know Trayvon Martin, but I know his fear all too well. For many of us, the Trayvon Martin case has reopened the scab on our souls created by the continual experiences of racial abuse at the hands of our "fellow Americans" and institutions designed to protect us. Every Trayvon Martin case triggers the trauma, reminding us of the fear, pain, suffering, and humiliation that we have long silenced and suppressed. Some of us may share our narratives of racial abuse in private spaces where we feel safe. But far too many of us remain silent, especially in the public sphere. How do we challenge individual acts and systems of racial abuse if we remain silent? Moreover, how do we do so in a society that tells us that we are "overly sensitive" about race? Or that we talk too much about it? Or worse, that we are the racist ones because we "insist" on seeing everything through the lens of race? Or worse still, that we brought the violence upon ourselves because of the way we were dressed?

Sadly, the hoodie now occupies the same space racially that the mini-skirt occupies in gendered narratives that blame the victim of sexual violence. In a society that tells us that we deserve the violence because of our fashion choices, or that we need to stop "crying wolf" over racial injustice, or that we "complain" too much about racism, the tragic irony is that you ain't even heard the half.

Protesters pray at a rally for slain teenager Trayvon Martin on March 22, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.But for those suffering under continual racial abuse --- one that is denied vehemently by society at large --- how do we share our narratives with our abusers?

Yes, the Trayvon Martin case has become a focal point for so many of us because we can debate U.S. racial politics, whether or not President Obama will call Trayvon's parents, the value of black life, the need to repeal the "stand your ground" laws so that racialized (and other) minorities can feel safe, etc.

Yes, it is interesting for all of these legal, political, and sociological reasons. But, for many of us --- and this is a point that has been ignored thus far --- this case is a focal point because it is a way for us to tell our stories without exposing our own fear and vulnerability. We regularly silence our pain, ignore our fear, avoid dealing with the hurt. But in this case, because there appears to be so much evidence of racial abuse and misconduct, coupled with the fact that he was just a young boy, we feel empowered to speak out on behalf of Trayvon --- even if we cannot yet speak out on behalf of ourselves.

This is precisely my point. We are Trayvon Martin. So not only must we speak out when the victims can no longer speak for themselves, but by breaking the silence around racial abuse, we can begin a healing process that addresses our collective hurt and humiliation and restores our humanity. We --- all who have suffered similar experiences, regardless of race --- can begin sharing our racial abuse narratives in the public sphere. By doing so, we can hope that others will stop seeing racial abuse as something that happens only to so-called deserving ghetto black kids (whatever that means) and start empathizing with black suffering by seeing it as part of the human experience. By sharing our narratives, we can begin showing how systems of racial abuse create traumatic memories for some, deep depression and hopelessness in others, and a silencing of our collective suffering around issues of racialized violence.

So, while society thinks we already talk too much about racism, the real stories, and the trauma associated with them, have yet to be heard.

Protesters demonstrate at a rally for slain teenager Trayvon Martin on March 22, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.As I write this, the sharing has already begun. Twitter hashtags like #WeAreTrayvonMartin and sites like I Could Be Trayvon are just beginning to appear. High school and university students around the nation --- including those at "The Black House" at Stanford University --- are coming together not just to protest racial abuse, but, importantly, to process it.

Together we can all share our stories and collectively break the silence around racial abuse. In the name of Trayvon Martin, and for the sake of his family, we must.

H. Samy Alim directs the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL) and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) at Stanford University. His forthcoming book, "Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.," written with Geneva Smitherman, examines the racial politics of the Obama presidency through a linguistic lens.

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